Detroit Native Breaks Ground at Ontario Shakespeare Festival

Sam White is making history as the first African American woman to direct a play at the Stratford Festival — but she had her start right here in Detroit.
Photograph courtesy of the Stratford Festival

Sam White didn’t fall in love with Shakespeare by choice.

She fell in love with the Bard of Avon because her mother busted her for listening to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” when she was just 8 years old.

“My mother made me read the complete works of Shakespeare as punishment,” White laughs. “Eventually, I started to like it and enjoy it. My mother planted the seed of theater and Shakespeare.”

That seed grew into Shakespeare in Detroit, a nonprofit organization White founded in 2013 that produces live productions at various sites throughout the city in an effort to make the Bard’s work more accessible.

The first performances took place shortly after the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. Next month, Shakespeare in Detroit, which has engaged more than 14,000 audience members, will celebrate its 10th anniversary with free performances of The Tempest in Campus Martius Park.

White knew her mom would show up for those first performances at Grand Circus Park, but she didn’t expect over 500 people to attend as well.

In those early days of bankruptcy, there was discussion about the Detroit Institute of Arts and its vast collection being used as collateral to pay off debts. White says it was a critical moment, “a wake-up call for Detroiters that art is essential to life in Detroit.”

White has made art and theater essential in her life, too. It’s taken her from being a local kid from Seven Mile and Evergreen to becoming the first African American woman to direct a play at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, one of the most prestigious theater institutions in North America.

It remains rare for any American director to direct at Stratford.

“I have so many people that I grew up with in my neighborhood and in my school that have not had the opportunities that I’ve had,” White says. “Now it’s my job to always come back to Detroit and say, ‘This is what I’m doing internationally, and you can do the same thing.’

“I won’t be the last person from Seven Mile to have an international career,” White says.
White is directing Wedding Band at Stratford, which has its opening night on July 14 and will be running at the festival through Oct. 1 at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Wedding Band was written during the Civil Rights era by actor-writer-playwright Alice Childress, who holds the rare designation of being the only African American woman to have written, produced, and published plays across four decades. Her work continues to resonate with audiences today, with her canon enjoying a renaissance in recent years.

The play explores a relationship between a Black seamstress and a white baker against the backdrop of the First World War, the 1918 flu pandemic, and the deeply rooted racism of the Deep South in Charleston, South Carolina.

While their interracial love is a driving force of the play, White says, it’s the relationship between four women in the story that drives White.

“I remind the cast about this all the time. While the subject matter and many moments of the play can be quite intense, the play is not a tragedy.

“We have four entrepreneurial women who drive it. I feel very lucky to tell the story of these incredible women, and we get to see a real love story with the middle-aged Black woman as the protagonist of a play,” White adds. “That never happens in American or Canadian theater, so I’m very excited to direct this play and tell this story.”

White says she was attracted to this play because it doesn’t let the monolithic narrative of “overcoming the racial odds” dictate the larger story. There’s beauty and hope and complexity in these characters, reflecting a reality of individualism in Black America that’s often whitewashed off the stage and off the screen.

She nods to the power of Childress’ work as the impetus.

“She didn’t negate the tragic circumstances. The beauty of the story, however, is that the character is radiantly happy at the end of the play,” White says. “That radiance is the thing that has sustained African Americans in this country for centuries. We’ve found [it] in church, in community, in singing, in the food that we eat and the sisterhood that we have. It’s quite incredible to tell a story like this that doesn’t lean into the tragedy but rather celebrates the radiant joy of these women.”

Last December, White’s mother passed away. When we talked, she was in the middle of rehearsals for Wedding Band with her first Mother’s Day without her mom looming on the calendar.

“Let me tell you — I’m so happy that I had the mother that I had because I’m a kid from Seven Mile and I’m directing at one of the finest theatrical institutions in North America,” White says. “It’s because my mother gave me the completed works of Shakespeare. It shaped my life. It shaped my connection to theater. It shaped the way that I tell stories.”

It shaped White as a person, too. Her family didn’t travel much when she was a kid, but theater was able to take her to places she could only dream of. Her mom made sure to feed her the classics and take her to see shows like A Chorus Line at the Fisher Theatre.

“Because she exposed me to so many things, I always knew there was a life beyond where I came from,” she says. “She was a good one, even though I was mad at her when she made me read all 37 plays in Shakespeare’s canon. I’m more grateful than ever that she gave me that.”

There’s one thing White’s mom, Janet, couldn’t change about her, though.

“I will say that I still listen to Salt-N-Pepa,” White laughs.

This story is from the July 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.